JAMES SNYDER ANNE & JEROME FISHER DIRECTOR OF
BY LISA STAHL
The sky is lit in patches of violet and aqua in Jerusalem, gateway to ancient and modern civilizations, a city sandwiched between mountains and magical lakes. The sacred home of three great religions, Jerusalem exists in political and legal limbo, unrecognized by the world as Israel’s capital, the epicenter of an old and bitter conflict.
Not far from the offices of the Israeli Prime Minister, a little oasis sprawls serenely on 20 acres of land. The Israel Museum sprouts—expanding its encyclopedic scope, thanks in part to a $100 million renovation project completed last July and financed by the generosity of international fan — largely Americans.
The “campus renewal project” accomplished the total renovation of three collection wings and features an updated architectural design enabling visitors to navigate collections following the timeline of culture from prehistory to the ancient Near East to contemporary art worldwide.
One of the world’s leading art and archaeology museums, the museum has fine art, design and architecture from pre-Columbia, Asia, Africa, and Oceania, reposi- tories of Jewish culture—some from extinguished communities— and an impressive modern and contemporary art collection.
James Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director, is arguably one of its greatest acquisitions. Snyder joined the museum in1997 after a 22-year career at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a fitting choice as the museum thrives on American support. The museum was expanding; Snyder had the needed talent, enthusiasm, vision and experience. As deputy director at MOMA, he managed the museum’s exhibition program, giving him tremendous exposure to the museum scene internationally.
But when approached about the job, James, who had never been to Israel, hesitated, but thought it might be an appealing challenge. “I was already experienced, from my international work at MoMA, at dropping into cultures about which I knew very little and, at times, without knowing the language. So I said to myself, this sounds interesting. I went to take a look, and the potential of the place—and its power and beauty—took my breath away.”
Articulate and dynamic, Snyder, who studied modernist literature and art history at Harvard, found his true calling in the museum world. Modernism is still a passion; not surprisingly, the Israel Museum has one of the strongest Dadaist and Surrealist collections in the world.
The Israel Museum’s recent renewal is a signature accomplishment—and an important cultural statement. “Our idea was to subordinate any new initiative to the museum’s original vision of a kind of modernism erupting from a Jerusalem hilltop. This becomes the background for making a statement about how all things connect across the timeline of visual culture from the beginning of time to the present. Whether you’re an art historian or scholar or just a guy off the street, you shouldn’t, in this setting, miss this point.”
James adds, “Our new landscape is about composure and serenity—and it is gorgeous. You come here, and tensions fall away, and you become open to appreciating the continuum of world culture from prehistory to today and, from our vantage point in Jerusalem, appreciating how this story unfolds from the emergence of the three great monotheistic faiths.”
The museum’s collections have expanded remarkably over such a short lifetime of less than 50 years. “We might be one of the few truly universal museums worldwide, given the range of our collections—from prehistoric archaeology a million and a half years ago to contemporary world art and across the full landscape of the western and non-western cultural traditions.”
The educational programs are also unique. “We teach 100,000 students and over 5,000 teachers each year, from first graders on, showing them how to make art and to appreciate art in a museum setting. It is something very moving to behold, and it reaches out to all of Israel’s diverse populations. We see our role as teaching people about art as a way into intercommunal and cross-cultural understanding.”
Almost missionary in his sense of purpose, James takes those statements and puts them to practice: “For example, we bring entire communities of Arab students to the museum to have them learn from the experience of art in our setting. And we join Arab and Jewish kids together for joint classes which are probably their first cross-communal experiences, with art as the common ground. These are the kinds of steps that can unite different communities and perhaps help to bring harmony to the region.”